As soon as the Dallas Stars season ended in unconscionable fashion just three minutes into overtime on Sunday night, thoughts of nearly every fan both leaving the arena and sitting at home turned to what needed to happen next. With a team that was so clearly just on the cusp of being something truly special, what moves were needed to take that next step and continue developing and growing as a franchise and team?
That burden falls on general manager Jim Nill, who had some missteps along the way in his first season running the Stars but also was the figurehead of a culture and attitude change that has awoken hockey in North Texas once more and made the entire league sit up and take notice that what's happening in Dallas cannot be overlooked.
Nill made his first public statements since that loss when he made an appearance Tuesday morning on 1310 The Ticket with Norm Hitzges to talk about the postseason disappointment and the state of the team moving forward. Like he has been ever since coming to Dallas, Nill was rather forthright about the direction of the franchise and was once again very positive in his outlook.
"The disappointing part," said Nill, reflecting on the series loss to Anehim, "I'm disappointed for the players. They've worked so hard this year, they've battled hard, to lose the way we did, it hurt. Unfortunately in life, it's not always easy. You have to go through these tough times. It's a hard lesson to learn, but it's going to make us better down the road."
Then, Nill looked forward into the future and praised what many around the league are also saying -- that the Dallas Stars have created a foundation of success on which to build on.
"When I came here, I knew the players just from scouting in the league," said Nill. "I didn't know the people. What I'm encouraged by is we have an unbelievable room. Our foundation moving forward... they're good people, they're good players and they want to win and they play for each other, and that's the most important thing."
Lindy Ruff had nothing but praise for the effort level of his team throughout the season and into the playoffs, while acknowledging the shortcomings of a young and overall inexperienced team. It's an attitude that has started with Nill -- faith in his players and his coaching staff and the belief that they'll play for one another to the bitter end -- that has created a structure that not only is trending in the right direction, but it's something to be incredibly proud of and one that others will hopefully want to be a part of.
Which leads the conversation, naturally, to any improvements and additions that can be made and just what sort of money situation the Stars are in heading into next season. After being right near the cap in 2013-2014, Nill didn't seem to think the Stars will be pushing the $71.1 million ceiling next year -- but that doesn't mean the Stars are back to being penny pinchers, either.
"Money wise we're sitting fine," said Nill, when asked about the cap situation. "We're still a very young team, and the way the cap is set up, young players for the first 3-5 years, their cap hit stays small.
"If there's a player out there, we can grab him."
Having the ability to go after a player in free agency is a lot different than players actually being available and Nill reiterated what he's said the moment since he was hired and that free agency isn't the end-of-all-things solution it might have once been.
"What it comes down to now is it's a draft and development league," said Nill. "If you're a team like us that has a good foundation, that has a lot of kids coming up, you're going to be okay. You don't have to depend on free agency as much."
As will be covered extensively in the coming months, the Stars will once again be looking to add the mythic and long-sought "No. 1 defenseman" this season but after stating that last summer knowing it was the biggest need, the defense might not be the focus that it once might have been. Nill praised the growth of players like Jordie Benn, Brenden Dillon and Patrik Nemeth as well as the coaching staff -- but he also didn't shy away from the fact that the need for that top-pairing player is still on his mind.
"We've got some good young kids coming, so the defense need isn't as big as it was," said Nill. "Now, if there's a No. 1 or 2 out there and we can make a trade, then yes we would do it, but those guys aren't often out there."
"For any high end players you're going to get, it's going to be a trade," said Nill, when asked if a big move would have to be via trade. "The big free agents out there, they're not the high-end guys. They're the secondary guys.
"It's all about assets. If you have enough young assets, you either keep those and grow with them or you have the opportunity to make some moves. That's exactly how the Tyler Seguin trade worked."
Nill also praised Kari Lehtonen and the growth he showed in the postseason, noting that while there were some games and some goals he'd like to have back he also acknowledged the series loss could not be pinned on his shoulders directly.
The Stars general manager was also praise-worthy of Jack Campbell's development in Cedar Park this season but cautioned that while Campbell may be looking better and better and "is close to the NHL," goalies typically take a bit longer than any other position to really be ready for that jump.
"The goaltending position, it's a position you can't rush." said Nill. "You can't rush any kids realistically, but the one you can't rush is goaltending, so we're going to be very patient with him."
Finally, the conversation ended with Nill being asked what his dream situation would be if he could do anything to the roster and once again the Stars general manager was echoing what fans and analysts alike know to be the biggest issue.
"If we could find, and this is fantasy hockey... we'd love to have a No. 1 or No 2, 6-4 defenseman who can play on the power play and stuff," said Nill. "The problem is they don't grow on trees."
"It's something we've got to develop, or maybe we'll try to trade for one."
Ah yes, the proverbial trade for a top pairing defenseman. What has been talked about for over half a decade in Dallas has yet to yield any actual trades of that magnitude. Nill then stated exactly why that hasn't happened yet.
"The problem is that No. 1 wish is probably the No. 1 wish of about 25 other teams."
Let the offseason games begin.